Feds Called to Investigate Alabama DMV Closures in Latest Voter ID Debacle

The birthplace of the Voting Rights Act is once again creating obstacles for black voters.
Voting signs posted at a polling place in a firehouse in Selma, Alabama. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Oct 7, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Fifty years after it was passed, the home of the Voting Rights Act is offering a stark reminder of its long history of opposition to the landmark civil rights law. Alabama caught flak from voting rights advocates last week after the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency voted to close 31 DMV offices across the state, most of which are in poor, rural counties with majority black populations. Given the state’s strict voter ID law, advocates argue the move will disproportionately prevent black Alabamans from casting their votes. Now, Rep. Terry Sewell, a Democrat representing Alabama’s 7th congressional district, has asked America’s top cop to investigate the closures.

“This decision will leave eight out the 10 counties with the highest percentage of non-white registered voters without a DMV,” wrote Sewell to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Monday, requesting a “formal investigation” by the Department of Justice and asking that Lynch or her representatives attend town hall meetings in the affected communities to discuss and witness the impact of the decision. Eight of the 14 counties Sewell represents would be without a DMV office, according to her letter.

Alabama’s law requiring voters to present government-issued photo ID was introduced in 2011, though it didn’t pass until 2014. In 2011, Shelby County, Alabama, sued Attorney General Eric Holder, sparking a legal battle that in 2013 went to the Supreme Court, which, in its decision for the plaintiff, gutted a key section of the Voting Rights Act.

A rash of similar voter ID laws and other restrictions, such as ending same-day registration and reducing early voting periods, swept the states after the Shelby County decision, all of which disproportionately impact people of color, according to voting rights expert and author Ari Berman.

Alabama officials have defended the closures, arguing they are an innocent result of tightening the state budget.

“The criticism is strictly a liberal attempt from people who are not from here, and don’t understand what’s going on with our people or our budget situation,” Secretary of State John Miller, a Republican, told Talking Points Memo. Officials also argue that a state-operated mobile site that makes free IDs will help fill in the gaps as it travels to all 67 counties in the state. But, Talking Points Memo reported, only 29 IDs have been issued from the mobile unit this year. Approximately 250,000 Alabama residents reportedly don’t have IDs.

Though Lynch has not yet publicly responded to Sewell’s request, a lawsuit against the state seems inevitable if it goes through with the intended closures. On Friday, the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund sent Gov. Robert Bentley a terse letter detailing the ways in which the closure violated the rights of Alabama residents and asked to meet with state officials.

“Given the strong likelihood that the state’s actions violate the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution, as well as the potential need for immediate legal action on our part, we ask for the opportunity to meet with your offices in person as soon as possible,” wrote Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the organization.